How to Become a Dog Handler

In law enforcement and security, dogs and their handlers usually live together.
In law enforcement and security, dogs and their handlers usually live together. (Image: Ibrakovic/iStock/Getty Images)

Of course you love dogs -- but so does every other person who ever dreamed of a career as a professional dog handler. No matter which branch of the canine service field strikes your fancy, count on stiff competition just to get a foot in the door. That's why anything that could give you an edge over the next hopeful -- excellent grades, advanced education in a relevant field, a history of dog-related volunteer work -- is worth pursuing. And no matter how young you are, it's never too early to start practicing on your own pooch.

Law Enforcement K-9 Units

Many local and state police departments, and some federal agencies, have canine units. Before you can work with dogs, you need to be accepted into a police academy or its equivalent and pass basic training. The minimum educational requirement is a high school diploma, notes Education Portal. All federal agencies demand a bachelor's degree, and many police departments insist upon higher education too. Preferred fields of study include law enforcement or criminal justice. Duration of basic training varies with agencies but K-9 units typically want applicants to have hands-on law enforcement experience. After you pass preliminary tests, the next step is a formal training program to learn how to handle dogs for searching, tracking, detection and other procedures. Police dogs usually live with their handlers.

Training Service Dogs

A "common misconception" about the service dog field is that it's all about dogs, says Assistance Dogs International, a worldwide umbrella organization that sets training standards. In reality, it's more about empowering people with disabilities. If that isn't your top priority, you might not be right for the job. All member organizations have their own certification requirements but most offer an apprentice training program that lasts two to three years. Look askance at schools that claim to be able to qualify you in six months -- that's how long it takes to properly train one dog. Many people apply and few are chosen but volunteering for the dog training facility you want to apprentice with can make you a more attractive candidate, suggests ADI.

Keeping Airports Safe

The Transportation Security Administration doesn't employ the handlers who patrol most of the country's larger airports with dogs trained to sniff out explosives. These folks are paid by the municipal or state body responsible for protecting the airport. However, they all need to pass a grueling 11-week training course at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog School on Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. It's not for beginners. To be eligible, you'd need at least a year of full-time experience caring for, training and handling dogs used in security or law enforcement. A high school diploma is mandatory but an associate degree in criminal justice or law enforcement background is preferred. After successful completion of the course, expect to have to make a three-year commitment.

Handling Therapy Dogs

Not only is handling a therapy dog gratifying on its own, if your long-term goal is to go pro, this kind of volunteer experience looks great on a resume. Most therapy dogs -- those who visit people in hospitals, nursing homes and rehab facilities -- are the pets of the handlers who bring them there. On its website, the American Kennel Club recognizes five certification organizations eligible to confer the AKC's Therapy Dog title and also provides a lengthy list of therapy dog groups located throughout North America. Though each group sets its own training requirements, many require dogs to pass two or more demanding tests before proceeding to more training and orientation sessions with their handlers.

Handling Show Dogs

Becoming an American Kennel Club-certified professional handler of show dogs isn't only a career, it's a lifestyle. Owners of championship-quality purebred dogs often pay these experts to prepare dogs, mentally and physically, to compete for titles in the show ring. Acquiring the practical knowledge necessary to train, groom and present dogs to their best advantage before judges isn't all these professionals need. In addition, they're required to have their own indoor kennel facilities, with outdoor exercise areas and separate grooming areas. Another prerequisite is a vehicle equipped with everything needed to transport, groom, exercise and feed their clients' dogs, in all types of weather, while at shows. To be eligible for the AKC's Registered Handler program, applicants must have at least seven years paid experience showing dogs, usually gained during apprenticeship with a professional show dog handler.

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